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Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ crafts a taut, tense tale of gender relations

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At the Cannes Film Festival this past May, acclaimed director Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antoinette”) generated a lot of buzz as she became just the second female director — and first American-born female director — to win in the Best Director category for her latest effort “The Beguiled.” And after viewing the film, which was released nationwide June 23, it’s not hard to understand what all the buzz was about.

Through the years, Coppola’s calling card has been her prolificity in examining the trials and tribulations that women face in a male-dominant world. With “The Beguiled,” a remake of the 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood, Coppola submits some of her finest work yet, using the Civil War-era South as a backdrop to explore a timeless aspect of the female experience: the phenomenon by which the mere presence of one man can totally change the dynamic of a previously all-female quorum, and how that shift can culminate in women gradually becoming versions of themselves they no longer recognize.

The chaos is set into motion when, just outside a seminary for adolescent girls in the deep South, a student discovers wounded Union Army Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) lying helplessly in the woods, and leads him to shelter at the seminary. Although McBurney’s sudden presence is certainly an unwelcome one, especially given the fact that the war is rapidly slipping out of the South’s control, the seminary’s schoolteachers Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, doing an extraordinary job of converting her Australian accent into a Southern drawl) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) reason that it would be immoral to turn him over to the Confederates before his leg heals fully.

Despite Farnsworth’s and Morrow’s best efforts to prevent McBurney’s extended stay from becoming a distraction, most of the students are instantly drawn to the tremendously charming McBurney in some capacity, whether it be romantically or as a way to fill the void of a male presence in their lives. And as McBurney’s days at the seminary become weeks and the jealousies among the women brew into full-fledged rivalries, even Farnsworth and Morrow find themselves succumbing to McBurney’s charms.

From a visual standpoint, the film is often breathtaking. Featuring a vivid combination of gorgeous exterior shots of the Civil War-era Southern landscape during the day and haunting, dimly lit interior shots within the seminary at night, each frame feels like it’s finely crafted and infused with purpose. And Coppola’s ability to keep things moving at a brisk pace while still delivering a slowly simmering, truly satisfying emotional payoff is yet another testament to her directorial abilities.

But what really makes the film pop is what’s on the page: a layered study in gender relations featuring both mature adult women as well as girls in various phases of adolescence, each with a distinct personality that adds depth to her dynamic with McBurney. And the characters are brought to life thanks to outstanding performances.

Kidman shines as the battle-ax Farnsworth, whose interactions with McBurney transition effortlessly from curt to kindhearted. The same goes for past Coppola collaborator Dunst as a fish out of water who yearns to be anywhere but at the seminary, and Farrell in a role that will keep you guessing: is McBurney truly as tenderhearted as he seems? Or is he merely trying to enchant the women with the hopes that they’ll change their minds about turning him over to the Confederate Army?

While “The Beguiled” garnered well-deserved critical praise from critics at Cannes, not all of the publicity it received heading into opening weekend was positive. Coppola’s choice to omit a black female slave character who was featured in the 1971 original and cast Dunst in the role of Edwina (who was mixed-race in the source material) was met by some with ire and sparked a debate about Coppola “whitewashing” the film.

Aware of this controversy, I was skeptical of Coppola’s decision heading into my viewing of the film. After seeing it, however, I understand Coppola’s decision, and honestly believe it was probably for the best. Coppola’s goal here wasn’t to tell a story about race; it was to tell a story about gender. Given the fact that slavery is such a brutally ugly chapter in American history, the portrayal of a black slave in a film set in the Civil War-era South presents the risk of race becoming its focal point. In tackling a Civil War period piece, Coppola inherited a double-edged sword.

Indeed, by making a film about an all-white group of women, Coppola handicapped herself in her attempt to make an all-encompassing film about all women. Did Coppola miss an opportunity by changing Dunst’s character from mixed race to white? Perhaps — it definitely would have added an extra layer of depth to the gender study. But, again, when you consider the potential risk of having the film’s central thesis become muddled by a perceived commentary on race, I believe she chose her approach wisely.

People will, of course, continue to debate the issue, and both sides have valid points. But one thing is for sure: the story Coppola did manage to tell in “The Beguiled” (which is rated R) is truly worthwhile.

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